Joseph Anderson

Robert Browning, “A Death in the Desert”

I did not expect to be taking on Robert Browning when I initiated my “Poetry and the Spirit of Shamanism” project. As Wikipedia says, “His work has…had many detractors, and most of his voluminous output is not widely read.” Ouch.

I got to Browning by a series of unexpected hops:

  • It all started with W.B. Yeats (a solid poetry-and-shamanism resource, from the “fire in my head” of Wandering Angus and for so many other reasons, waiting to be explored)
  • While mining Yeats for Celtic mystical goodness – of which there is plenty – I was surprised to learn how influential Ezra Pound was in Yeats’ ongoing transformation into an epic poet of contemporary life as well as of the mythic past (that rare  combination so dear to my heart).
  • Taking a look at Pound I was surprised to see shamanic glimpses there too (look at the shapeshifting mesmerizing quality of his Canto II sometime; it’s impressively resonant with shamanic experience).
  • Digging further into Pound, another intriguing aspect of his poetry is the way he plays with identities, putting on one personality after another: Homeric, classical, medieval troubadour, Italian, English, Chinese…  These shifting identities have their resonances with shamanism too, but also point back to one of his major influences, an equally voluminous, uncompromising poet who loved to explore the complexities of personality…
  • Hello, Robert Browning!

There are lots of things about Browning’s poetry that are pretty difficult. First, the syntax is really dense: long, puzzle-like sentences that take time and thought to parse. Browning like many other 19th-century poet is completely unafraid of word choices that make us stretch. Then there is the shadow of some attitudes that we have (I hope) grown beyond: use of the word “man” for humanity is obnoxious but so pervasive in that era that I have to be willing to overlook it; the references to “progress” are easy for me to associate with social Darwinism, genocide of indigenous peoples and other not-good things. And the poems are so long! You actually have to concentrate for a while to read them (none of us is as good at that as we used to be…).

But if we can get past all of this, there are rich rewards. The poem that came to my attention is A Death in the Desert. Many of Browning’s poems have a rich dramatic context; in this poem the context is that an aged John the Evangelist has been brought to a cave in the desert to escape persecution and reflects on the meaning of the human journey. Let’s dig in to one key passage:

I say that man was made to grow, not stop;

In the context of the complexity that precedes this and is to come, such a statement is as lucid as can be and is worth reflecting on, all by itself. But of course there is much more…

That help he needed once, and needs no more,
Having grown up but an inch by, is withdrawn:
For he hath new needs, and new helps to these.

This passage perfectly captures the experiences I’ve had on the shamanic path, and I I think anyone who lives a life of faith on any path knows exactly what this is like. This is why conventional religion and conventional spirituality are so inadequate – we are always in need of something new because we are always changing.

This imports solely, man should mount on each
New height in view; the help whereby he mounts,
The ladder-rung his foot has left, may fall,
Since all things suffer change save God the Truth.

“Imports” = “means”.  This image of a ladder with rungs that fall apart as one climbs could be a nightmare or an exhilarating vision, though I prefer the latter; in any case the vividness of the image reminds me very much of trance experiences, and I think it accurately captures the disconcerting yet thrilling sensation of spirit journeying.

Man knows partly but conceives beside,
Creeps ever on from fancies to the fact,
And in this striving, this converting air
Into a solid he may grasp and use,

I just have to break in here to point out the creative power of imagination! We imagine: we concretize imagination through art, through ritualized enactment of our intentions, through embodiment in our lives; we grow. That is the path of the humans.

Finds progress, man’s distinctive mark alone,
Not God’s and not the beasts’: God is, they are,
Man partly is and wholly hopes to be.

“God is” – that’s a pretty normal theological thing to say, certainly profound and worthy of reflection, but what especially interests me in the context of shamanism is “they [the beasts] are”. I haven’t done an in-depth study of Browning but it wouldn’t surprise me if he has the typically disparaging 19th-century attitude (and, discouragingly, 20th-  and 21s- century attitude as well) that animals are inferior to humans. But that’s not what this passage is saying. Rather, it’s that animals *are*, just as God *is*. There is a fundamental being at their core, something that humans have to earn. To shed a sidelight from Walt Whitman:

I think I could turn and live with animals, 
they are so placid and self-contain’d, 
I stand and look at them long and long.

Whether intentionally or not Browning is exploring the same territory: animals partake of a divinity; they are stable; they are rooted in their being.

The whole idea:

God is, they are,
Man partly is and wholly hopes to be.

is a perfect expression of my credo as a shamanic practitioner:

  • I encounter the Being of the spirit of God, as expressed through the sacred teachers I meet in upper worlds, and at times in more directly mystical and cosmic ways – and this encounter supports my transformation. 
  • I encounter the Being of the spirits of animals (but also plants, waterfalls, rivers, mountains, heavenly bodies) – and this encounter supports my transformation. I am dynamic; they are; they support my becoming.

I was helped greatly with this passage and Browning in general by Hiram Corson’s Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning. Corson was writing in the 1880s, closer to Browning’s era (Death in the Desert was published in 1864), and I think he sees something worthwhile that we may be missing. Commenting on this passage Corson says, “Browning has given varied and beautiful expressions to these ideas throughout his poetry.”

OK then!  It’s worth it to keep looking!